Court system failing to support public understanding of justice system
1 November 2022
The Justice Committee has warned that the court system needs to do more to support open justice in the digital age. In a report published today, it calls for a renewed focus in the court system to remove barriers to the media and members of the public coming to court proceedings. It also calls for more work to be done to support digital platforms to cover court decisions.
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The decline of print media has resulted in court proceedings being less visible to the public and digital media has so far failed to fill this gap. Many regional titles have shut down and those that remain are no longer able to employ dedicated court reporters, meaning it is harder for people to see how the justice system operates in their area.
Barriers in the court system are making it difficult for journalists and members of the public to follow court proceedings. The quality of publicly available information can often be poor and basic data about court proceedings unavailable. The Committee also heard complaints about a lack of access to key documents submitted to courts making it difficult to follow proceedings.
The Committee calls for a new approach across the court system that makes it clear that access for the media and members of the public is a fundamental element of sound justice. The Courts & Tribunal Service should develop a single digital portal where the media and public can access full information on court proceedings, court documents and any other relevant information. Consideration should also be given to how the service can fill the gaps in media coverage, by improving direct communication with the public and better facilitating court reporting. Every court should have a publicised point of contact that supports access, provides information and answers queries. Open days would also send a clear message that anyone is welcome and break down barriers that could prevent people attending.
New technologies have the potential to provide greater opportunities for court reporting. Remote proceedings can allow greater accessibility for reporters without have to attend in person. Social media has also supported instant reporting and allowed for live updates on cases. The broadcasting of Crown Court sentencing remarks is also a welcome step in improving understanding of sentencing decisions and consideration should be given to expanding this to other courts.
The Courts & Tribunal Service has embraced online procedures in criminal and civil courts in order to increase efficiency, but there are concerns that this may come at the cost of transparency. The Single Justice Procedure, where hearings take place in private, is of particular concern. The Government should review the procedure and seek to enhance its transparency by publishing case information in a timely fashion.
The Committee further calls for more to be done to address long-standing concerns with transparency in family courts, while ensuring the confidentiality of children involved is protected. It finds there is legitimate public interest in having a better understanding of how these courts work and their findings which affect so many families. The legislative framework governing the reporting on family proceedings is no longer fit for purpose should be reviewed and reformed.
Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neil MP said:
“Since the turn of the century there has been a transformation in the media landscape. We no longer live in a world where national and local newspapers act as the eyes and ears of the public in the courtroom. However, digital media has so far failed to fill the gap in court reporting left by the decline in physical media. More needs to be done to address this critical gap and the loss of public understanding of how justice is applied.
Too often, significant patience and tenacity is required to access court proceedings that it is our democratic right to witness. The Courts & Tribunal Service needs to do more remove barriers to the media and public coming to court rooms, not just by doing more to publicise information but actually welcoming them in and showing how the justice system works.
They should also embrace the opportunities that new media and technologies allow, understanding how broadcasting of certain court proceedings and use of social media can give greater access to court. If open justice is to be improved in the long term, it will take place in the digital sphere and the court system must put in place the framework to facilitate that.”
- Inquiry: Open justice: court reporting in the digital age
- Justice Committee
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